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Well-being: Six ways to thrive in ministry

by
15 January 2021

Liz Graveling suggests ways to practise and improve well-being

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Balancing family relationships, vocational fulfilment, and health can be challenging

Balancing family relationships, vocational fulfilment, and health can be challenging

FOR the past four years, through its Living Ministry research, the Church of England’s National Ministry Team has been exploring the well-being of ordained ministers (News, 23 October). Nearly 1000 clergy ordained since 2006 have taken part in surveys, interviews, and focus groups covering areas as diverse as physical and mental health, spirituality, vocation, finances, and relationships.

From the myriad stories, responses, and perspectives gathered so far, the hundreds of pages of findings can be summed up in one word: kindness.

Well-being, insofar as we can influence it, is as simple and as complex as being kind to oneself and to one another. Why is it so complicated?

First, well-being varies for different people and at different times. Not only do needs differ, but what constitutes living well also varies. It is possible to have general principles — like the ones outlined below — but how these play out in practice varies enormously.

Second, well-being has many aspects, some of which conflict with each other. Balancing family relationships, vocational fulfilment, and health, for example, can be immensely challenging. In ordained ministry, where boundaries are often blurred, it is important to view well-being holistically.

Third, well-being itself requires work. Kindness is not just rest and reward: it also involves challenge and discipline. The key is knowing how much of each is required at which point, especially in a vocation in which sacrifice is the norm.

Fourth, we don’t have complete control over our own well-being. Sometimes, illness or other circumstances mean that we are not well through no fault of our own. To the extent that we can control it, well-being is negotiated, and we each share in responsibility for the well-being of those around us.

It has to be addressed institutionally as well as personally: structures and systems can also demonstrate kindness. The principles below are not just self-care. Dioceses and senior clergy have a responsibility to handle expectations of other clergy, to value and affirm them, to recognise times when they are vulnerable, and to shape an environment where clergy can develop healthy rhythms and boundaries.

 

THRIVE is a tool developed from the experiences of Living Ministry participants. It sets out six principles contributing to their well-being.
 

1. Tune your life to healthy rhythms

Even without the chaos of a pandemic, the blurred boundaries and immense variety of much of ordained ministry mean that structured routines can be elusive. To maintain spiritual, physical, mental, and relational well-being, clergy often develop their own life-giving rhythms of prayer, work, rest, exercise, and nutrition.

During a national emergency, particularly one in which the rules of play change frequently at very short notice, establishing and maintaining healthy rhythms becomes harder than ever.

Over the past months, we have seen many of our normal routines decimated, from church services to haircuts. Amid the constantly shifting disruption to every part of our lives, we need somehow to establish new rhythms that sustain and give life. Ground yourself in patterns you already have, tune in to your own needs and preferences, and be flexible.

Above all, be kind to yourself. Well-being itself becomes a burden if we feel pressure to be well. Routines intended to be life-giving can quickly become oppressive if forced, and healthy rhythms can emerge naturally as well as through design.

 

2. Handle expectations

One of the commonest causes of stress in all aspects of well-being is unclear expectations. In a time of heightened uncertainty, it is especially important to manage expectations: what we can expect from others, what others expect from us, and what we expect from ourselves.

We need to recognise the situation we are in, and the obstacles and pressures we face — and adapt our expectations accordingly. Some of these pressures will be work-related and some will come from elsewhere: it is important to view our lives holistically and acknowledge that we — and others — may not be able to achieve as much as we are used to when we have to home-school children or queue for an hour just to buy food.

Prioritise. What is realistic? What is sustainable without risking your own physical and mental health? Now is not a good time to start comparing yourself or your ministry with others.

Clear communication, as well as an extra dose of kindness, grace and flexibility, is crucial.

 

3. Recognise times of vulnerability

There are certain times when clergy are more vulnerable to dips in well-being, such as the move into first incumbency, or during a health issue, family bereavement, financial difficulty, or congregational problem. For some, the current circumstances entail all of these and more, and it is important to recognise both the issues and their implications for our well-being.

Whether we are supporting others, or are ourselves in need, it is helpful to recognise and name the pressures and anxieties that burden us. However strong we are, or would like to be, no one is unaffected, and everyone needs extra support in one way or another.

Simply naming the difficulties can relieve some of the burden. Learning about normal human responses to trauma can also help. Self-care is vital: in such challenging times, be extra kind to yourself as well as to others.

Finally, there is only so much we can do for ourselves. This is a time when we are likely to need more support than ever, but it is also easier than ever to disappear from view. Reach out to the support structures around you: senior clergy, diocesan officers, peer networks, professionals, colleagues, family and friends, and keep connected.

 

4. Identify safe spaces in which to be heard

We all need to be listened to. For ordained ministers, safe, honest, and supportive relationships are often found in family, friends, spiritual directors, counsellors, mentors, colleagues and other clergy, whether individuals, longstanding peer groups, diocesan-facilitated groups, or networks of people in similar circumstances.

Isolation has taken on a new meaning since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Isolating for the good of ourselves and others carries risks for other aspects of our well-being, as the groups and relationships that usually provide support are no longer able to function in the same way.

Especially during times when we may be trying to maintain a non-anxious presence for others, it is essential to have safe spaces — online or over the phone, if not physical — where we can be honest about our own burdens and feelings.

 

5. Value and affirm

Of utmost importance to well-being is the need to be known, understood, and valued at a human level as well as by God. In ordained ministry, it is easy to feel unappreciated and demoralised. The implications of this cut across all aspects of well-being, causing physical and mental stress, isolation, guilt, and vocational doubt.

We can all actively value and affirm each other, and doing so becomes ever more important during extended periods of uncertainty, pressure, and isolation.

There are many ways to let people know they are valued. A phone call to ask how they are doing, a birthday or thank-you card, prompt response to questions, a listening ear, and, sometimes, permission not to have to achieve quite so much can make an enormous difference to well-being.

We can also affirm ourselves, by accepting affirmation when it is offered, by being realistic about the challenges we face, and by acknowledging that, however we feel about ourselves, we are truly loved.

 

6. Establish healthy boundaries

Ordained ministry has few formal borders. Clergy, especially those in parish ministry, face work that impinges on family time, intrudes into private space, invades rest and sleep, complicates relationships, inhibits expense claims, and expands into all the minutiae of church life.

To some extent, then, clergy are well-equipped to manage the blurring of work and home currently being experienced by so many of the population. Even so, boundaries of time, space, mind, role, relationships, and finances are increasingly challenged during lockdown.

Boundaries are always negotiated with other people or between conflicting interests. For some, the terms will change as they adapt to different ways of working and living, for example managing work alongside family at home, or balancing contact with colleagues or congregations with maintaining time off work.

The challenge is to protect the most important things while also being flexible and kind to others and to ourselves. We will almost certainly need to adapt our normal boundaries and expectations, both because of imposed restrictions and because of changing priorities and values. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate, and make sure you do it in the spirit of kindness.

 

Dr Liz Graveling is director of the Living Ministry Programme, and the author of How Clergy Thrive, www.churchofengland.org/living-ministry. She will be speaking at an online event hosted by the Church Times, “The Weight of This Calling: Clergy burnout, wellbeing, and resilience”, on 21 January, 5-7 p.m. For more information and tickets (£10, or £5 for subscribers), visit www.churchtimes.co.uk/the-weight-of-this-calling.

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